Pianist Brian Ganz

By Roger Emanuels

BRIAN GANZ has taken on the herculean task of performing the complete works of Chopin in a series of concerts spread over several years. Santa Cruz listeners heard one program in that series on Sunday at Peace United Church. The Distinguished Artists Concert and Lecture Series scored yet another home run presentation in this concert season. The program emphasized Chopin’s musical connection with his home country, Poland, where music of the polonaise and the mazurka originated.

Ganz opened with the familiar “Military” Polonaise, his clean and dry articulation inviting closer listening. It’s curious how a polonaise, a dance in 3 beats, somehow becomes a military march, but this performance made it happen. The resident Yamaha CFX piano was called into action at several points that require the musical equivalent of a cannonade, as powerful ascending scales seemed to end in explosions of sound.

The mazurka is another favorite of Chopin, having composed at least 59 piano pieces based on this traditional Polish dance. They are less well known than other genres, but contain the most interesting sound elements, according to Ganz. He admits an attraction toward the composer’s more experimental efforts here. In the two mazurkas next on the program, it became obvious that Ganz has a strong affinity with the music of Chopin. As he created a supple and graceful rhythmic flow, the playing took on a quality of storytelling. In his comments after the applause, Ganz did indeed talk about the story telling qualities of Chopin’s music. This was in preparation for the Ballade No. 1, played with utmost expression and controlled virtuosity. It was clear that pianist Ganz was enjoying this music and that joy was reflected in his performance.

Three etudes from Opus 25 illustrated the technical demands on the player. No. 1, known as “Aeolian Harp” has swirling clouds of arpeggios while the little finger of the right hand carries the melody throughout. No. 2 assigns all the melody to the right hand, while No. 7 gives the melody to the left hand, in what Ganz referred to as the “cello etude” because its lower melodic range.

The Polonaise Opus 53 closed the first half of the program. Known as the “Heroic” etude, Ganz dedicated this performance in honor of Poland’s Independence, the 100th anniversary recently celebrated on November 18, which corresponds to Armistice Day. He brought out all the heroic elements in the score with ease.

The concert took on the character of a seminar on the music of Chopin, with the performer giving extensive notes and background on all the pieces. This was useful as the program lacked any notes at all. With Ganz’ comfortable and positive presentation, the audience seemed grateful for all the information. After intermission, he invited questions and there were several that he was happy to take. It was clear that he not only greatly enjoys performing, but also enjoys interaction with the audience.

Four mazurkas from Opus 41 followed, each with distinctive characteristics that provided for engagingly expressive playing. The Polonaise Opus 26, No. 2, was dramatically dark and ominous. The Etude Opus 10, No. 3, is probably the least virtuosic of Chopin’s 27 works in the form, as it drips with melancholy and inner reflection from its lyrical melodic writing. Ganz seems to relish finding a huge variety of characterizations, which was obvious throughout his program. His final piece was the seldom performed Allegro de Concert, Opus 46, a virtuoso piece that lacks much of the emotional subtleties in other pieces, but is guaranteed to bring a satisfied audience to a cheering, standing ovation.

The “Adieu” Waltz in A-flat major, Opus 69, No. 1, was the single encore, providing a nice dessert to the feastly concert. Perhaps this listener was the only one in the hall who was thinking that a two and a half hour concert was a bit lengthy, with more than enough spoken comments. But with such joyful and inspired playing and engaging commentary, that is not a complaint.

The Distinguished Artists next concert features pianist Jon Nakamatsu and clarinetist Jon Manasse on January 11.